Acting crazy: A strategy on the streets of Copenhagen

Published date01 May 2024
AuthorHakan Kalkan
Date01 May 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Acting crazy: A strategy on the
streets of Copenhagen
Hakan Kalkan
Roskilde University, Denmark
US studies of street culture note that acting crazycan provide status on the street, but rarely
elaborate on this phenomenon. Based on several years of participant observation in the street cul-
ture of a disadvantaged part of Copenhagen, this article provides an in-depth analysis of the phe-
nomenon of craziness. It reveals that it is a nuanced and multifaceted phenomenon and that street
actors can strategically act crazy to gain several advantages. It further explains how crazinesshas
to be tempered with other amiable characteristics to be benef‌icial in street culture, and how it can
also be advantageous in dealings with state institutions, as well as a disadvantage in mainstream
Crazy, status, street culture, violence, welfare state
One night, as I was walking with Tariq towards a 7-Eleven, I shared my ref‌lections on his
communitys street culture, which I was ethnographically studying.
Hakan: I have been thinking about writing that what gives status is being sick.
Tariq: Yes.
Hakan: What do you think about that?
Tariq: Yes, indeed.
Hakan: Yes, right? Thus, people want to be known as sick,asmental, because then
one rises.
Tariq: So, you mean there are hierarchies, and then youre at the top, that way?
Hakan: Yes.
Corresponding author:
Hakan Kalkan, Department of People and Technology, Roskilde University,Universitetsvej 1, 02, 4000 Roskilde,
European Journal of Criminology
2024, Vol. 21(3) 411430
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14773708231208561
Tariq: No, try to look at Søren, he is mental, but he is not [high status]. That is, if there
is something [a problem] and he can handle [beat up] the other, then hell do it,
but otherwise, he is not.
Hakan: No, no. I know. It is not being mental that does it. Being mental alone doesnt
matter. It is about being brave, that is, doing things that others will not do, you
know: [being] dangerous, sick. And then if you are also mental, then that is an
extra plus. Then you are completely dangerous, because then people do not
know what you can come up with. Like Ömer. You become known for
being unpredictable.
Tariq: Yes, thats right. [] Suddenly you run amuck over nothing. But you also have
to think about
Hakan: That some play crazy to get status?
Tariq: Yeah, and because then they do not go to prison and can get money from the
This late-night conversation with Tariq highlights a phenomenon that is often described
in U.S. studies of street culture (Anderson, 1999; Vigil, 1988), that being seen as crazy
can be advantageous on the streets. However, beyond its importance for status and protec-
tion, this phenomenon has rarely been discussed in detail in US literature. Moreover,
in-depth knowledge thereof is fragmented, with brief elaborations scattered across
several works. In studies of European street culture, the phenomenon is rarely mentioned
at all. More comprehensive knowledge of the phenomenon is benef‌icial, not only for
studies of street culture but more broadly in criminology, as it can shed light on the ration-
ality of (criminal) motivations and actions that appear irrationally deviant.
This article discusses crazinessin the street culture of Nørrebro, a partially disadvan-
taged district in Copenhagen. It is based on ethnographic f‌ieldwork that I conducted in
Nørrebro from 2006 to 2015 with young men participating in the districts street culture.
I became familiar with their distinct valorisation of craziness,usedhereasanumbrella
term that covers what their street culture considers crazy,sick (in the head),ice-cold,
and mental. An in-depth analysis is provided of different important facets of craziness
through an unfolding of themes mentioned in the above conversation with Tariq.
If‌irst focus on clarifying the central characteristics of craziness: indifference and reck-
lessness, comprising the ability to (or appear to) be ice-cold (emotionally unaffected),
unpredictable, and able to cause chaos. I discuss how acting/being crazy can be advanta-
geous in street culture especially regarding status, but also material gains, freedom of
action, masculinity, dominance, and entertainment and why some act crazy to gain
these advantages. As such, I reveal the rationality of apparently irrational behaviour by
elaborating on the strategic reasons for acting crazy and thereby demonstrate that the
act is predominantly an example of impression management conducted to cultivate
advantages rather than the manifestation of an irrational mental disturbance. In particu-
lar, regarding gaining status on the streets, I emphasise the relationship between craziness
and violence. I further illustrate and analyse the (blurred) distinctions between acting
crazy and being (allegedly) mentally ill, as based on medical diagnosis, and discuss
the strategic advantages of the latter. Moreover, I describe how these forms of craziness
must be tempered by amiable characteristics that is, being a good manon the streets to
412 European Journal of Criminology 21(3)

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